Wastewater facility is an environmentally sound alternative

Guest Column • Gregg Barkley

In the May 21 Examiner several articles focused on the negative impact the potential high-density housing and the associated sewage treatment plants will impart on the rural nature of Millstone Township.

I’ll agree that high-density housing is certainly a departure from what one envisions when the term “rural community” is mentioned. However, targeting sewage treatment plants as the problem or condemning them as detrimental to the environment is inaccurate, especially when compared to the historic wastewater treatment practices in Millstone Township and other rural communities.

In Millstone Township businesses and restaurants generating wastewater utilize septic systems. In addition, a vast majority of these homes and businesses obtain water from on-site wells located on the same property. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) standards allow wells to be located as close as 100 feet from a septic disposal area. Therefore, everyone utilizing wells and septic systems are drawing their drinking water out of the ground within relatively close proximity to where they discharge their wastewater. That’s not to say that the septic effluent percolates directly downward into the well intake. Fortunately, the geology of central New Jersey in most locations includes numerous layers of soil, several of which are composed of clays, which can isolate the shallow percolating wastewater from the deeper water bearing formations.

A septic system typically consists of a below-grade tank (usually concrete) where solids are separated from the liquid portion of the wastewater in an anaerobic (without oxygen) environment. The anaerobic microorganisms, primarily bacteria, consume some of the wastes and those materials heavier than water sink to the bottom of the tank and those materials lighter float to the top. The relatively clear liquid, called effluent, flows out of the tank to a subsurface disposal system. In some cases, the effluent first flows to a pump tank where it is pumped to the disposal system. The disposal system could be seepage pits, a series of trenches or a disposal bed, the function of which is to allow the effluent to percolate through the soil where it eventually reaches the groundwater.

Fortunately, the ground provides filtration of solids and is very effective in removing bacteria and viruses. However, some constituents in the wastewater, such as nitrogen, are not removed through either the tank or the soil. Septic systems in Millstone serving single-family homes and business with a flow of less than 2,000 gallons per day (gpd) are regulated by the Monmouth County Health Department under standards set by the NJDEP.

Following construction of the septic system, the Monmouth County Health Department performs no monitoring and does not impose any maintenance or reporting requirements on the owners of the septic systems. Typically the only maintenance performed would be periodic pumping of the tank to remove accumulated solids or replacement of a pump. The health department’s involvement following construction is usually only when the owner or a neighbor notices a problem such as odors or effluent on the ground surface.

For properties generating greater than 2,000 gpd whether from several homes, a large business or a strip mall, the NJDEP requires a ground water discharge permit since new surface water discharges are typically infeasible. The ground water discharge permit outlines the standards that

the wastewater must meet prior to entering the soil for percolation into the ground water. These standards commonly include limitations on the concentration

of nitrogen, which is in the form of nitrates and ammonia as well as the amount of fecal coli form bacteria present. In order to remove these constituents from the wastewater, a combination of aerobic (presence of oxygen) and anaerobic processes as well as disinfection with ultraviolet light are utilized.

Wastewater treatment system operators licensed by the NJDEP monitor these wastewater treatment processes on a daily basis. Monthly reports are sent to the NJDEP detailing the volume of wastewater treated as well the results of tests performed on the treated wastewater such as nitrate, ammonia, fecal coli form bacteria and pH. These results are compared to the requirements of the ground water discharge permit and if any parameter is exceed, monetary penalties can be imposed. Following treatment to remove a significant amount of the impurities in the wastewater, the treatment facility effluent is discharged into the ground through subsurface disposal beds, drip irrigation or infiltration basins which utilize the soil to further filter and purify the wastewater prior to entering the ground water.

These wastewater treatment facilities invariably include above- or below-grade tanks as well as pumps and electro-mechanical controls, which on smaller-scale systems are housed in a building. The building can have the appearance of a barn or other farm-like structure.

The quality of effluent discharged from a properly designed and operated wastewater treatment facility is a significant improvement over that discharged from a septic system typical to a rural community such as Millstone Township. When one understands the treatment processes employed at a well-designed and operated wastewater treatment facility, coupled with monitoring and oversight, I believe it is clearly the more environmentally sound alternative to standard septic system in widespread use.

Gregg Barkley